mm092: Nuclear proliferation – The riddle of Iran – Economist.com

July 31, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

A week has passed since I found this analysis in The Economist, the best magazine on the planet, an eternity in the ‘Sphere, but this is too important to let go by.

The morass in Iraq has distracted us from the very real danger represented by a nuclear Iran…


Economist.com






Jul 19th 2007
From The Economist print edition

Iran’s leaders think a nuclear weapon could rejuvenate their tired revolution. How can they be stopped?

“THE Iranian regime is basically a messianic apocalyptic cult.” So says Israel’s once and perhaps future prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu. If he is right the world is teetering on the edge of a terrifying crisis.

While the world has been distracted by Iraq, Afghanistan and much else, Iran has been moving relentlessly closer to the point where it could build an atomic bomb. It has converted yellowcake into uranium hexafluoride gas. Now it is spinning the gas through thousands of centrifuges it has installed at the underground enrichment plant it built secretly in Natanz, south of Tehran. A common guess is that if it can run 3,000 centrifuges at high speed for a year, it will end up with enough fuel for its first bomb….

[Per L-HC’s reformed process, please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Economist.com

Shockingly, Iran has been lying to all of us. What can the civilized world do? Deal with Iran preemptively? As the Economist notes, such a preemptive strike from the US or Israel would have dire consequences:

Even if it delayed or stopped Iran’s nuclear programme, it would knock new holes in America’s relations with the Muslim world. And if only for the sake of their domestic political survival, Iran’s leaders would almost certainly hit back. Iran could fire hundreds of missiles at Israel, attack American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, organise terrorist attacks in the West or choke off tanker traffic through the Strait of Hormuz, the world’s oil windpipe. How could any Western leader in his right mind risk initiating such a sequence of events?

The succinct answer of Senator John McCain is that although attacking Iran would be bad, an Iran with nuclear weapons would be worse. He is not alone: most of America’s presidential candidates would consider military force….

The Economist’s writer believes that a diplomatic solution is still possible:

Iran is obstinate, paranoid and ambitious. But it is also vulnerable. A young population with no memory of the revolution is desperate for jobs its leaders have failed to provide. Sanctions that cut off equipment for its decrepit oilfields or struck hard at the financial interests of the regime and its protectors in the Revolutionary Guards would have an immediate impact on its own assessment of the cost of its nuclear programme. That on its own is unlikely to change the regime’s mind. If at the same time Iran was offered a dignified ladder to climb down—above all a credible promise of an historic reconciliation with the United States—the troubled leadership of a tired revolution might just grab it. But time is short.

Copyright © 2007 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights reserved.

Economist.com

Sensible advice, and based on past performance, we can have no confidence whatsoever that the diplomatic all stars running our government have any clue how to resolve this issue with any positive outcome.

George, diplomacy is more than sending Condi on a flurry of pointless excursions.

But, no matter who becomes the next Cmdr-in-Chief, the Economist reminds us that this issue won’t wait until January 20, 2009.

Okay, I’m terrified.

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE


mm090: The least bad plan for leaving Iraq. – By Fred Kaplan – Slate Magazine

July 30, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

So, guys, this one’s lost. My generation’s Vietnam, indeed.

What now? Here’s an interesting idea…

Defeat Without Disaster – The least bad plan for leaving Iraq.

By Fred Kaplan
Posted Friday, July 27, 2007, at 2:45 PM ET

Peter Galbraith’s article in the current New York Review of Books, “Iraq: The Way to Go,” is one of the most bracing essays written on the subject lately—a provocative but logical case for a U.S. withdrawal (though not a total withdrawal) that still manages to achieve a few of the war’s original goals.

I don’t agree with every plank of Galbraith’s proposal (more on that later), but anyone seeking a solution to this disaster needs at least to contend with his arguments.

[Per L-HC’s reformed process, please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

The least bad plan for leaving Iraq. – By Fred Kaplan – Slate Magazine

Kaplan reports that the main tenet of Peter Galbraith’s proposal is:

He has now abandoned his plan for a partitioned federation, regarding the southern two-thirds of Iraq—the areas dominated by Shiite and Sunni Arabs—as hopeless. Instead, he calls for withdrawing U.S. troops from those areas and redeploying some of them to the northern sector, in order to protect the Kurds.

The Kurds need and deserve our protection, especially if it’s true that the Turks are massing 140,000 troops on their border with “Kurdistan.”

Kaplan is unhappy that Galbraith has pretty much written off Arab Iraq as hurtling toward a “sectarian bloodbath.”

If defending Kurds takes our forces out of the path of that certain (and ongoing) Sunni-Shiite bloodbath, I’m liking that idea.

“Least bad” would save some U.S. lives and lots of body parts (the fewer new cases at Walter Reed, the better!).

Any of our vast field of presidential wannabees weigh in on this? Michael Bloomberg, what do you think?

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE


mm082: Knock Knock, It’s Your Big Mac

July 24, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

I fight a battle with myself all the time: The Economist or Business Week — how to choose? Both take time to read carefully. Both reward the careful reader. Here’s a story from a couple of issues ago that just tickled me…

bw_255x65

Europe July 12, 2007, 8:44AM EST text size: TT

Knock Knock, It’s Your Big Mac

From São Paulo to Shanghai, McDonald’s is boosting growth with speedy delivery

by Michael Arndt

Mickey D delivers? You bet. While Americans suffering from a Big Mac attack typically pull up to the drive-through window, in the developing world the fast-food chain increasingly does the driving. In traffic-choked cities from Manila to Montevideo, McDonald’s deploys fleets of motor scooters to get hot food to customers fast. “I’m too lazy to go out and stand in line,” confesses Nada Abou el Soud, a Cairo high school student. She says she calls in an order for a Mc- Chicken combo meal at least once a week, dropping about $4.25 each time, including a 70 cents delivery fee.

All told, McDonald’s delivers in some 25 cities, with a half-dozen more on deck. The company just launched deliveries in Taipei, with 1,000 drivers, is expanding Shanghai to citywide service this summer, and is testing the concept in Beirut and Riyadh. In Egypt, where the setup was pioneered in 1995, deliveries now account for 27% of all McDonald’s revenue and up to 80% at some restaurants. Globally, delivery sales are expected to total more than $110 million in 2007, up from $90 million last year, the company says. While that’s spare change for the $21.6 billion giant, the business is growing by 20% to 30% annually, more than triple the chain’s overall rate.

NO CLEANUP
It’s profitable, too. Delivery margins usually top the 13% to 14% that McDonald’s outlets generally yield. That’s because the courier fee, which runs from 50 cents to $1, covers the cost of handling phoned-in orders and the fleets of drivers and motorbikes. “And we don’t even have to clean up a table,” notes Timothy J. Fenton, president of McDonald’s Corp. (MCD) operations outside the Americas and Europe. “It’s incremental profit for us.”

The business is emblematic of the change in thinking at the Oak Brook (Ill.) company. From McDonald’s start in 1955, headquarters dictated pretty much every detail of running a franchise. But as revenue growth stalled several years ago, management began encouraging experimentation. So while the basic menu and layout of a McDonald’s is still pretty much the same everywhere, restaurants in China now have latitude to substitute corn for fries in Happy Meals, some in the U.S. blend fruit smoothies, and those in Australia and France have coffee lounges that feel like a Starbucks (SBUX). “Management is looking beyond Oak Brook for inspiration,” says UBS Securities (UBS) analyst David S. Palmer. “They’re becoming better at sharing the best ideas around the globe.”

McDonald’s opened its first location in Egypt in 1994. Its local licensee quickly suggested adding delivery after noticing that other fast-food chains, and even five-star hotels, offered the service. The first trial took place six months later at two outlets. One key was setting up a call center with a single toll-free phone number for metropolitan Cairo. The other was hiring hundreds of scooter drivers to snake their way through the city’s thick traffic to make their drop-offs before the McNuggets get cold. Today, almost all of McDonald’s 35 restaurants in and around Cairo deliver, while only a couple have drive-through windows. McDonald’s has mimicked this setup as it has expanded the service to other countries.

One place, though, that the Golden Arches won’t come knocking is the U.S. The delivery model works well in congested cities where there’s no affordable space for drive-through windows, but plenty of cheap labor to ferry the food to customers. Except in Manhattan, where a handful of McDonald’s deliver phoned-in orders to nearby high-rises, land isn’t an issue in U.S. cities and people find it easier to pick up meals themselves. But with ever more sales coming from abroad, Ronald McDonald will be plenty busy making the rounds for some time.

With Caroline Ghobrial in Cairo


Knock Knock, It’s Your Big Mac

Remember the conversation years ago? McDonald’s is so American, it won’t go over over there.

Well that battle has been won. And one of the reasons is obvious — they are not afraid to try a different delivery model, and of course different menus, where appropriate.

BTW, in the four plus years that MUDGE has been trying to maintain a low carb existence, I’ve eaten at a McDonald’s just a couple of times, and that on the road, where dependability (and the promise of a reasonably clean restroom) is paramount.

This sudden avoidance of mine was a radical change from old habits (several visits per week, week in and week out, for all my adult life), and I’m sure the resulting revenue impact just from the loss of my business alone was a primary factor when Mickey D decided that the overseas thing just had to work.

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE


mm080: Why most terrorists are so incompetent. – By Tim Harford – Slate Magazine

July 23, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

We wrote about the terrorist attempts in Britain a few weeks ago. Here’s an incisive analysis from yet another columnist I try not to miss at Slate.com blogroll2.

slate

the undercover economist: The economic mysteries of daily life.

Dumb Bomb – Why most terrorists are so incompetent.

By Tim Harford
Posted Saturday, July 21, 2007, at 7:53 AM ET

The attempted attacks in London and Glasgow, Scotland, three weeks ago surprised many people for two reasons: that the suspects were all educated medical professionals rather than desperate, uneducated vagrants; and that they bitched the job so badly.

The first revelation should not, by now, have been much of a surprise. My Financial Times colleague Gideon Rachman has reminded us that Osama Bin Laden is an engineer, his family is fabulously wealthy, and his deputy is a doctor.

Economist Alan Krueger, author of a new book called What Makes a Terrorist?: Economics and the Roots of Terrorism, attempts to add to these examples with a systematic study of the evidence. He concludes that terrorists, political extremists, and those who commit hate crimes are often relatively well-to-do. This is a difficult thing to prove, not least because each of those categories is controversial and there is a world of difference between, say, Northern Ireland and Sri Lanka. Krueger dips into different sources of data, each one imperfect, trying to build up a compelling picture from opinion polls, biographies of terrorists, and broader studies.

Opinion polls from Gaza and the West Bank conducted in December 2001 show that students and professionals are more likely than the unemployed or laborers to say that terrorism can be justified, and more likely to deny that a suicide bombing in a Tel Aviv nightclub should be described as “a terrorist act.” (The polls reveal more unanimity than disagreement on these points but certainly offer no evidence that education or wealth leads to more moderate views.)

When he was a graduate student at Princeton, the young economist Claude Berrebi gathered data on more than 40 Palestinian suicide bombers. He concluded that they were far better educated than the typical Palestinian, and also richer. Krueger offers a complementary picture using biographies of 129 Hezbollah fighters killed in action, although not necessarily while attempting a terrorist attack. They, too, were somewhat better educated and less likely to be poor than the typical young Lebanese man of the time.

More indirect evidence comes from studies of hate crimes, which are thought to have some parallels with terrorism. Again, economic motives are hard to find. It was once the conventional wisdom that lynchings in the American South were more common whenever cotton prices were low, indicating tough times for the economy. Historians no longer believe in the correlation. In general, hate crimes do not seem to be more common in economic downturns—although economist Emily Oster seems to have found an exception in medieval witch hunts, which were more common when crops failed.

All in all, the research that professor Krueger gathers together suggests that if there is a link between poverty, education, and terrorism, it is the opposite of the one popularly assumed. We should not be surprised to find that terrorists can add up, read, and even write prescriptions.

What is more surprising is that the attackers in London and Glasgow were so incompetent. Claude Berrebi and Harvard economist Efraim Benmelech studied—there’s no nice way to put this—the human-resources policy of Palestinian terrorist groups. They found that older, better-educated terrorists secured more important suicide missions and killed more people. Having more than a high-school education doubles the chance of escaping capture, for example.

If the terrorists in this case do turn out to be the doctors and other professionals who are, as I write, suspected of the crime, it would demonstrate that even years of education and experience do not guarantee a successful attack. Blowing up innocent people is obviously harder than it looks, and for that we can all be grateful.

Why most terrorists are so incompetent. – By Tim Harford – Slate Magazine

This is all most disturbing. If these were U.S. trained doctors, you’d think that they might have decided to blow themselves up to get off the hook for their student loans. [Ba-dum-bump].

Two questions (well, at least two) come to mind after reading this:

  1. Hey, TSA — how’s that air travel profiling coming?
  2. How well do our ever-intrusive domestic security agencies know what’s up in our own Muslim communities? (And by the way, does anyone call it Detroitistan?)

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE

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WcW002: Web Conferencing Week – On location

July 22, 2007

wcw1

Web Conferencing Week

In our first venture in this direction, WcW001, I described the week just past as filled with unusualities (coined in this space tyvm; if I use it 500 more times, think that it gets added to anyone’s dictionary?), and described one. Here’s another.

Only a few times in the five years I have been plying my trade at the HCA, have I been asked to conduct business outside the friendly confines of the navel of the known universe, our dual expansive campuses and its outlying but nearby satellite sites.

But, Wednesday afternoon I received voicemail from one of my most frequent clients, the sales training functionary for one of our most important product families, asking that I assist Friday at an all-day session emanating from a hotel near the airport.

Sent off a memo to the contact that had been specified, detailing the logistical arrangements that I would require (broadband access, a phone connection for the web conference’s accompanying telephone conference call, a second phone line and phone for monitoring purposes, sufficient power connections, table/chair near the audio technician, etc), received a quick response including the name and contact information for the event handler at the hotel. A quick call to this person confirmed that all would be as required, and her smooth and professional demeanor actually filled me with confidence that it indeed it would.

So, Friday, instead of trundling out to the navel, etc., trundled instead to the vicinity of the airport, to a very nice and upscale hotel, the likes of which grunts such as yours truly work at, but surely can’t afford to stay at.

After the usual flurry of activity around finding the venue, and locating the key contacts among people with whom one has spoken but never before seen (and no one wears red carnations to identify themselves any more — why is that?), located the hotel employee audio technician who was handling the event and, after at my request he arranged the switching out of his equipment table for something large enough for the both of us, began setting up.

The main problem in the morning during the run-up to the start of the broadcast sessions was the speed of the internet connection I was furnished. It seemed that everyone in the hotel was competing for the same not-so-broadband connection, and I found this to be somewhat crippling as I dealt with last minute changes to the presentation.

And, by the way, wireless was not an option. Not only did my laptop not detect wireless access in the room (although others PCs did, so that was a limitation of my equipment), but it is my hard experience that, for a very network-centric application such as a web conference, the flaky nature of most wireless connections is toxic.

As with most web conferencing applications, Lotus Sametime uses two major modes to display information to those connecting to it: screen sharing and its whiteboard. Screen sharing is the simplest mode: whatever the person sharing is doing on her desktop shows up within the screen sharing window in the instance of all participants’ internet browser connected to the meeting.

The meeting room whiteboard is not as simple to use; it requires prior setup to load (or, in Sametime nomenclature, attach) whatever presentation files to be shown. The value add for this setup requirement is that most presentations transmit throughout the network much more efficiently, since the information to be transmitted is cached on the server (i.e., while the current slide is shown, the next one is being loaded into memory, and the previous one remains available).

However, on the dead slow connection I experienced mid-morning at the hotel, the revised version of the presentation file I received could not load into the meeting — the process timed out. This was frustrating.

I persisted, and eventually, late in the morning, and perilously close to the noon start time of the first of the two events taking place in that room, the revision finally got loaded (I’m thinking that the contention for bandwidth on the hotel’s connection eased closer to lunchtime), and I was finally good to go. We connected the audio tech’s phone (running the interface from the room’s sound system so that all those using microphones would be heard on the phone) to the telephone conference operator, and at the proper time the event began.

Meanwhile, in this large conference room, an earlier event not requiring my participation had begun, and I had a chance to observe the participants from the tech table at the front side of the room. Well more than 100 young (everybody in corporate life is younger than yours truly these days!), attractive field sales people were in the midst of a several days long training conference. This day’s meetings were devoted to product knowledge.

Our field sales people have to know well a great deal of technical data, as well as all of the nuts and bolts of technical selling (a topic I’m certain was handled, or reinforced at least, on other days of this conference).

For most applications of web conferencing, usage is quite straightforward. The leader of the meeting connects to the Sametime server, connects his laptop PC to a projector, and uses the screen sharing mode to simultaneously project his presentation in the meeting room while making it available to remote attendees. In smaller meetings, whatever overhead is added for the web conference is minor, and whatever distraction that the electronic meeting may cause usually is minor.

However, for large meetings, that overhead and potential distraction is not acceptable. Early in my web conference facilitation experience I learned that for these types of large-scale events the best approach is to split the function of running the web conference away from the in-room presentation function.

And this is what we did for the meetings in the hotel conference center. This way, there was no spillover from the electronic conference into the meeting room itself; so had there been technical problems, or even communication from the remote participants relevant to the web conference, it would have been invisible to those in the room, and especially to the speakers, whose demonstrated technical expertise might not have extended to the web conferencing arena and whom in any event would not have welcomed such interruptions.

So, the idea is that two copies of the presentation are required: one, for the laptop PC connected to the projector in the conference room. The other, for the PC connected to and leading (“moderating” in Sametime nomenclature) the web conference.

After the energetic activities of preparation described above (and there’s always something in large meetings) things in the first, 50-minute session went quite smoothly, as did most of the second one until the last 90 minutes or so of that four-hour(!) presentation.

The last 90 minutes? Well, the second speaker neglected to mention the existence of, much less share his umpteenth and latest presentation revision with me. Turned out he had about 85 slides; I had only 67. Ouch. So I vamped as best I could (at one point I used my text annotation tool to announce that there were some new slides showing that were unavailable to the web conference).

Well, afterwards, my contact in field sales training consoled me by saying, “how many people do you think were actually paying attention in that last hour?”

And separately, the speaker apologized to me (after all, even those present in the room did not have those slides in their printed handouts) by saying, “they usually only allot me two hours.” Sigh.

But, in the larger context of the day this was minor (the organizers certainly reported so) although that could have been 5 o’clock Friday of a hugely busy week manifesting itself. But, if my customers are happy, so am I (especially if the issue in question was totally outside my ability to rectify).

Could I have anticipated a new version of the presentation? Of course, there almost always is. Could, under the constraints of time (just about 10 minutes from the end of the first meeting to the start of the second) and a suspect broadband connection (remember it took about 90 minutes elapsed time to upload the smaller revision to the first presentation) I have actually accomplished the successful update in time? Perhaps not. Sigh.

While it doesn’t really apply totally to this context, since the speaker was guilty with an excuse (had to fill a lot more time than usual — and by the way, his extended topics were interesting, to this amateur scientist, and relevant). Often, though, the last-minute tweaks that cause this practitioner of meetings so much gut-churning distress are mostly gilding the lily. So, it gives me the opportunity to roll out:

lifelesson

But, overall, a good and an interesting day. Can I apply the science I was exposed to during five-plus hours of presentations to my job, or my everyday life? Absolutely not. Was it interesting, in the context of learning for learning’s sake? Absolutely. Forty-eight hours later as I write this, can I remember any of it? Please don’t ask me that!

All told, an interesting end to a more unusual than usual week in the world of web conferencing.

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE


mm076.1: Bees Dying: Is It a Crisis or a Phase? – New York Times

July 21, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

The Times spins the bee-crisis differently from Slate, as posted here the other day in mm076

nytimes

July 17, 2007

Bees Dying: Is It a Crisis or a Phase?

By ANDREW C. REVKIN

Over the last year, large die-offs of commercial honeybee colonies, from unknown causes, have raised concern that an agricultural crisis is at hand. Now, however, some experts on insect biology and bee rearing are questioning how unusual the die-offs are, saying commercial beekeeping has long had a pattern of die-offs, and without better monitoring, there is not enough information to know if anything new or calamitous is happening.

If the problem is worse than before, they say, it may be because more bee colonies are being housed and trucked by fewer beekeepers, raising the chances of infestations or infections spreading.

The official word, endorsed by many scientists and people in beekeeping businesses, is that a newly named syndrome, called colony collapse disorder,or CCD, is at work and poses a significant threat to American fruit, nut and vegetable crops.

An action plan released Friday by the Department of Agriculture used the phrase “CCD crisis” to describe the recent die-offs, even as it said it was “uncertain whether CCD is a new phenomenon” and described similar die-offs as long ago as 1898.

No one in the field doubts that commercial beekeepers in more than 20 states have seen large declines in hive populations in the last year — more than 70 percent in some cases — and that agriculture is facing problems pollinating some crops.

It is also clear that bees in the Americas, both wild native species and honeybees, which were imported long ago and are the commercial standard, have been hard hit in recent decades by mites and infectious agents.

What some scientists say is missing from the debate is historical context. “Every time there are these disappearances, the ills of the moment tend to be held accountable,” said May Berenbaum, who heads the entomology department at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and led a National Academy of Sciences review of the status of North American bees and other pollinators that was published last year.

“In the ’60s it was synthetic organic insecticides,” Dr. Berenbaum said. “In the ’70s it was Africanized bee genes. In the 19th century, there is a wonderful report about this resulting from a lack of moral fiber. Weak character was why they weren’t returning to the hives.”

One thing almost everyone seems to agree on is the need for consistent, frequent censuses of the country’s bee populations, but money for monitoring has not been increased, bee experts said.

Eric Mussen, a bee expert at the University of California, Davis, said he did not understand the talk of catastrophe, noting that even after colonies are lost, beekeepers can quickly replace them.

Michael Burgett, a professor emeritus of entomology at Oregon State University, said the big honeybee losses in some regions could simply reflect unremarkable spikes above a common level of mortality of more than 20 percent in recent decades.

“In the late 1970s we had another scare similar to this,” Dr. Burgett said. “They called it ‘disappearing disease’ at the time. But we never found a specific cause for it, we continued to improve our bee management programs and ‘disappearing disease’ disappeared.”

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

Bees Dying: Is It a Crisis or a Phase? – New York Times

So, after the late 1970s, <“…’disappearing disease’ disappeared.”>.

Seems my friend ClapSo (commenting on mm076) has it right, as he always does: Panic of the Week.

Guess I can go back to thinking about Michael Bloomberg, and Iraq, and North Korea, and Iran and China and, and, and… 

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE


mm076: Why the disappearance of the honeybees isn’t the end of the world. – By Heather Smith – Slate Magazine

July 19, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

Thursday is apparently Science Day here at Left-Handed Complement. Spotted this story at Slate Magazine blogroll2 last weekend, and it finally bubbled to the top of the stack.

Bee Not Afraid – The disappearance of the honeybees isn’t the end of the world.

By Heather Smith
Posted Friday, July 13, 2007, at 3:55 PM ET

When the honeybees disappeared this winter, the thought of losing such a fuzzy and adorable animal inspired dismay. The fact that bees might also be useful drove us to despair. The first official reports of “colony collapse disorder” began to surface in October of 2006; seven months later, USDA officials were calling CCD “the biggest general threat to our food supply,” and newspaper columnists nervously joked about the impending “bloody wars not for oil or land or God but over asparagus and avocados.” Experts pointed to the $14.6 billion worth of free labor honeybees provide every year, pollinating our crops. With a full quarter of them AWOL, presumed dead, who would make sweet love to the $1.6 billion California almond harvest? More precisely, who would help the almond harvest make sweet love to itself?

Few people realized that the honeybee apocalypse was already over. We may continue to associate them with childhood sugar rushes and chubby-cheeked fertility metaphors, but in real life honeybees have been virtually extinct in North America for more than 10 years, their absence concealed by a rogue’s gallery of look-alikes. The stragglers have been kept alive only by the continued ministrations of the agricultural giga-industry that needs them.

It used to be that it was hard to eat a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich without a honeybee showing up and doing a little dance around your head. Hives (literally) grew on trees until 1987, when a mite called varroa destructor turned up in a honeybee colony in Wisconsin. Even for a parasite, varroa is less than charming. It looks like a microscopic baked bean, with sharp fangs used to slurp tiny droplets of blood from the abdomens of unsuspecting honeybees. Since these bites also transmit disease, like deformed wing virus and acute bee paralysis virus, an infested colony is kaput within four years. By 1994, an estimated 98 percent of the wild, free-range honeybees in the United States were gone. The number of managed colonies—those maintained by beekeepers—dropped by half.

The honeybees may have been especially vulnerable to the varroa epidemic. When the honeybee genome was sequenced a few years ago, researchers discovered fewer immune-system genes than you’d find in other insects. This despite the fact that the honeybee lives in tenementlike conditions, anywhere between 15,000 and 30,000 of them crammed into a hive the size of a filing cabinet. To make matters worse, a weakened hive often becomes the target of honey-raiders from healthier colonies, which only helps the parasites to spread.

It’s possible that if the American honeybees had been left to their own devices, they would have died off in epic numbers and then evolved natural defenses against varroa (like more effective grooming), as they did in Asia. But crops had to be pollinated and no one had the time to sit around and wait.

Beekeepers opted to keep their colonies on life support with selective breeding, and by sprinkling them with medicine and insecticides aimed at the invading mites. This was no longer a hobby for amateurs. The only honeybees left—i.e., the ones that started disappearing in October—had become the cows of the insect world: virtually extinct in the wild, hopped up on antibiotics, and more likely to reproduce via artificial insemination than by their own recognizance.

If anything, it’s impressive that the honeybee has hung on in America for as long as it has. The commercial hives spend half the year sealed and stacked in the back of 18-wheelers, as they’re schlepped down miles of interstate to pollinate crops around the country. During this time, they get pumped up with high fructose corn syrup, which keeps the bees buzzing and lively, but it’s no pollen. And if a bee happens to get sick on the road, it can’t self-quarantine by flying away from the colony to die. (In the wild, a bee rarely dies in the hive.) Add to the above the reduced genetic diversity resulting from the die-offs in the 1990s, and you have an insect living in a very precarious situation—where a new pathogen, even a mild one, could spell honeybee doom.

So what brought on this recent scourge of colony collapse disorder? Early news reports on CCD listed a plethora of suspects: pesticides, parasites, global warming, chilly larvae, ultraviolet light, not enough pollen, not enough rain, cell phones, and alien spaceships. Given the present state of the honeybee, any or all of these could have been the culprit. (Well, except for the cell phones and spaceships.)

It’s even possible the mystery disease has already shown up in years past. An 1897 issue of Bee Culture magazine mentions the symptoms of something that sounds remarkably like CCD, as do a few case studies from the ’60s and ’70s. Before bees fell victim to varroa and the ensuing stresses of modern life, these afflictions would have been easy to bounce back from. Today, the same causal agent could have more serious effects.

But is CCD such a tragedy? The honeybee may be the only insect ever extended charismatic megafauna status, but it’s already gone from the wild (and it wasn’t even native to North America to begin with). Sure, it makes honey, but we already get most of that from overseas. What about the $14.6 billion in “free labor”? It’s more expensive than ever: In the last three years, the cost to rent a hive during the California almond bloom has tripled, from $50 to $150.

Good thing the honeybee isn’t the only insect that can pollinate our crops. In the last decade, research labs have gotten serious about cultivating other insects for mass pollination. They aren’t at the point yet where they can provide all of the country’s pollination needs, but they’re getting there. This year the California Almond Board two-timed the honeybee with osmia ligneria—the blue-orchard bee: Despite CCD, they had a record harvest.

But these newly domesticated species are likely to follow in the tiny footsteps of the honeybee, if they’re treated the same way. Varroa mites have already been found on bumblebees, though for the time being they seem not to be able to reproduce without honeybee hosts. And bumblebees used in greenhouse pollination have escaped on several occasions to spread novel, antibiotic-resistant diseases to their wild counterparts. If things keep going like this, we may soon be blaming spaceships all over again.

Why the disappearance of the honeybees isn’t the end of the world. – By Heather Smith – Slate Magazine

Now, doesn’t that just turn your preconceived knowledge upside down? Who knew that the honeybee has been gone for a decade? 

If I wasn’t such a confirmed and level-headed “man of business” I’d probably be more frightened than ever of the devastating impact of agribusiness on our planet. Instead, like the almond growers, I’m certain that we’ll develop new ways; press new creatures into service; or perhaps create brand new, disease resistant honeybees out of silicon (per mm075?).

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE


mm071: Midwest Towns Sour on War as Their Tolls Mount – washingtonpost.com

July 17, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

The weight of history accumulates…

Midwest Towns Sour on War as Their Tolls Mount

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 14, 2007; A01

TIPTON, Iowa — This farming town in Cedar County buried Army Spec. Aaron Sissel during the Iraq war’s ninth month. It buried Army Spec. David W. Behrle during the 51st. Along the way, as a peaceable community’s heart sank, its attitude toward President Bush and his Iraq strategy turned more personal and more negative.

Sissel and Behrle were popular young sons of Tipton, a community of 3,100 where anonymity is an impossibility. Sissel bagged groceries at the supermarket and often bowled at Cedar Lanes. Behrle served, just two years ago, as Tipton High’s senior class president and commencement speaker.

The town, by all accounts, once gave Bush the benefit of the doubt for a war he said would make America safer and a mission he said was accomplished four years before Behrle died. But funeral by funeral, faith in the president and his project to remake Iraq is ebbing away.

Deep into a battle with no visible end, many Republican and Democratic voters here say the cause is no longer clear, the war no longer seems winnable and the costs are too high. After mourning Behrle, 20, and Sissel, 22, Tipton lost its heart for the fight and the president who is vowing to press on.

“It’s hitting all around us,” said Jim Allen, a salesman and former Bush voter at Fields Mens Wear on the town square. “Once we got there, I thought, ‘Let’s get it taken care of.’ Now it’s dragged on and on. It’s just every day, you hear of more casualties.”

In the first six months of the year, 125 troops from 10 Midwestern states died in Iraq, the bloodiest stretch of the war so far. Over the past year, 239 from those states have died, compared with 129 from July 2003 to June 2004.

While opposition to the war has been stronger and more visible on the East and West coasts, small towns in the heartland and the South have provided the Bush administration with some of its most steadfast backers. But that support has cracked amid the echoes of graveside bagpipes and 21-gun salutes, which have been heard with greater frequency in recent months in small Midwestern communities.

Two prominent Republican senators who broke with the president this month come from the nation’s midsection. Sens. George V. Voinovich (Ohio) and Richard G. Lugar (Ind.) said Bush needs to find a new direction in Iraq and a way to start bringing the troops home. A third defector, Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), said he began to reassess his position after conversations with the grieving families of dead soldiers.

Rep. Bruce Braley, a freshman Iowa Democrat who favors a firm timetable for Iraq, heard the pain when he met with the families of two fallen soldiers, Pfc. Katie M. Soenksen and Cpl. Stephen D. Shannon, on Memorial Day. He said people shouted words of support — “Good job!” and “Keep the pressure on!” — as he marched in Fourth of July parades.

It is “the intensity and passion” of the desire for an end to the war that strike Braley as new.

“There’s more unity in the opposition now,” said Braley, whose district adjoins Tipton. “It was always easier to find optimists about the chances of success in Iraq two years ago. You don’t now find people talking that way, even the most ardent supporters of the president’s policy.”

Retired electrician Bob Peck voted twice for Bush. The first time, in 2000, Democrat Al Gore defeated Bush in Cedar County by two votes, 4,033 to 4,031. Peck would not vote for him again, even if he could.

“The war and the way he’s handled it. We’ve lost too many boys,” said Peck, 71, a former Marine, as he sipped a drink at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2537. “We’ve been there long enough, and it’s not doing anything. It doesn’t look like it will.”

Woody Marshall, a Vietnam War-era Navy veteran, described his own evolution as he trained his gaze on an elegantly stitched tapestry of a smiling Aaron Sissel in a VFW corridor. At first, he was “thrilled” that U.S.-led troops toppled Saddam Hussein and his tyrannical government.

“I’ve never heard anybody now say the war is okay. Maybe around two years ago,” said Marshall, who said Sissel was very close to a pair of his in-laws, who owned the bowling alley. “It’s time to get the hell out. It’s a holy war, and you’re not going to win it, no matter what you do.”

The in-laws are Ernie and Kay Jennings. Sissel spent a lot of time at Cedar Lanes, becoming a smooth bowler and loyal worker under Ernie Jennings’s tutelage. He sometimes stayed past midnight, talking about life as a teenager whose parents had split up. He joined the National Guard while in high school.

Then came Iraq.

“When he left,” Jennings said, “we felt that all of them were coming back, and they all did, but one of them was horizontal. That was one of the roughest times in my life. He was like an adopted son.”

Jennings is an energetic talker, but there are moments when he is discussing Sissel that his voice breaks and he cannot continue.

“I have mixed feelings about the war,” Jennings said. “I’m a Republican. I agree with most things President Bush has done. I just don’t know if we know what to do over there. I believe we have to come up with an exit strategy.”

When word reached Tipton in May that Behrle was dead, Allen, the salesman, remembers thinking, “Out of the whole state of Iowa, why us?” He considers the war every time Behrle’s father, a good customer, comes into the store. Others mentioned the same thing, in a town where neighbors constantly cross paths.

Regular business at City Hall stopped for a week before Behrle’s body came home, as staff members made sure routes were cleared, streets were swept and flags reached the right places. “In a town of 3,000, you wouldn’t expect two of them to be killed,” Mayor Don Young said.

The town’s weekly newspaper, the Tipton Conservative, devoted its entire front page to the rain-swept, flag-bearing crowds that greeted the return of Behrle’s body. Photos of Behrle, from a childhood Halloween to a tour in Iraq, filled an inside page.

Included in the brief text was a comment from his family: “He is ‘The Man,’ and our hero.”

Dixie Pelzer remembers there were three of them, soldiers in uniform who came to the door at about a quarter to 10 one night in late May. She is Behrle’s mother, and she knew it was real — David had been killed by a roadside bomb. “Then it all just started,” said Pelzer, who works with student organizations at the University of Iowa.

The six weeks since have been a fog, she said, an initiation into a parallel world occupied by the families of the 3,611 U.S. troops who have died in Iraq. The support of friends and strangers has been magnificent, but her son is still gone, buried on an Iowa hilltop where she likes to think he would have been happy.

Behrle, she said, did not join the military in high school to embrace a grand cause. He enlisted at age 18 because he liked the idea. He told his mother he would spend three years in uniform, then go to college.

“It’s not like he was a patriot, or political. It was just something he wanted to do,” Pelzer said quietly, speaking with a reporter for the first time. “He said, ‘It’s okay. I’ll be fine, Mom.’ ”

She wondered if he would be fine. It was 2005. She figured Iraq would be calmer by the time his unit deployed.

Like so many Tipton residents who saw the war delivered like an unwelcome package when the cortege passed, Pelzer realized that it took her son’s death for her to focus on the war.

“I don’t know that you can win,” she said of the chances of victory in Iraq. “But if you can’t accomplish what you need to accomplish, get them out of there. There’s been enough. One is too many.”

Midwest Towns Sour on War as Their Tolls Mount – washingtonpost.com

I can’t add anything to top this: “One is too many.”

Congress, do your job! First, Cheney, then…

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE


mm069: The Votes Are In For New York’s Mayor Mike

July 16, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

Like you, I’m crying out for a Mike fix! Found mine in the current Business Week (always a terrific read — between BW and The Economist I feel absurdly well informed on most issues, business related as well as geopolitical), where the letters to the editor section had three responses to the article (remember back to the grand old days of mm024?) that was key to my awakening interest in the presidential future of Michael Bloomberg. 

bw_255x65

JULY 23, 2007

READERS REPORT

The Votes Are In For New York’s Mayor Mike

Your article confirmed my view that politics is a business (“The CEO mayor,” Special Report, June 25). It takes the right combination of managerial, risk-taking, and political skills to succeed in Corporate America, and those same skills can work on the national level in politics. The daunting task of fund-raising is all-consuming and reminds me of venture capital and the public-offering sequence of Wall Street. Imagine if a candidate could self-fund a campaign and extend successful, impatient pragmatism to the White House. Branding New York was a useful means of creating a perception that Gotham is a world-class city. Citizen-customers have been attended to, their needs have been considered, and now that can translate into votes.

A New York minute equals 30 days in Washington, and that gap has hurt the entire country. The 311 service initiated by the mayor helped New Yorkers see that communication with the government shouldn’t be exempt from the progress of the Information Age.

Michael Bloomberg’s fortune was made by showing the details of Wall Street finance, and he believes in openness, not obfuscation. Capitalism and efficiency shouldn’t be confined to the private sector. We are fortunate to have a person of Mayor Bloomberg’s caliber bringing energy and boldness to the challenges we face.

Steven A. Ludsin
New York

Your story on Michael Bloomberg nailed it: A high-profile politician can be pragmatic, progressive—and popular. And while New York City’s CEO has jumped from the Republican Party for a possible White House bid as an independent, his style should be a model for all conservatives. A well-run government is not all that different from a well-run business. Tough decisions today, even unpopular ones, can lead to a large payoff tomorrow when combined with a sound long-range strategy.

And Bloomberg is not only fiscally responsible. He’s also a champion of the environment, as he has proven with progressive initiatives ranging from the installation of hundreds of energy-efficient traffic lights to the promotion of hybrid taxis.

To be certain, the GOP is going to miss this CEO mayor, but if anyone can continue to keep the series of islands that make up New York City afloat, Bloomberg can.

Bob August
Tennessee Coordinator
Republicans for Environmental Protection
Nashville

Mayor Bloomberg may be doing great things for the city of New York. I don’t live there, so I’ll take your word for it. But those of us who live in other parts of the country wish he would leave the rest of us alone.

After he started harassing gun dealers in other states, the federal government told the mayor that not only had none of the targeted dealers broken any laws (none has been prosecuted based on the mayor’s actions), but Mayor Bloomberg himself may have violated federal gun laws in pursuit of those dealers.

David Husar
Arlington, Va.

The Votes Are In For New York’s Mayor Mike

So Michael, forget the NRA vote this time around! Two out of three wins most elections I can think of, thank you very much. My lunacy is found at another fringe altogether, and I remain very pleased with you.

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE


mm065.2*: Unshakable optimism on Iraq policy | Chicago Tribune

July 15, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

I’ve previously noted that the Chicago Tribune is MUDGE’S hometown newspaper. Its Op-Ed pages can be a lonely place for a curmudgeon of the left-handed persuasion, especially since brave Molly Ivins is gone.

But Steve Chapman of the Tribune’s editorial board, while quite conservative in many respects, has through the years earned my respect because on many occasions I have been surprised to discover that we apparently share a common view of what is most important. A case in point:

chapman Steve Chapman

Unshakable optimism on Iraq policy

Published July 15, 2007

Ronald Reagan used to tell the story of a boy so optimistic when he woke up on Christmas morning and was confronted with a huge mound of manure, he gleefully began shoveling. “There’s a pony in here someplace!” he exclaimed.

For President Bush, when it comes to Iraq, every day is Christmas Day. He’s been shoveling for more than four years but still fully expects that pony to pop out at any moment. On Capitol Hill, though, even Republicans are starting to suspect that the malodorous pile is that and nothing more.

On Thursday, the White House released its latest assessment of the war and concluded that on eight of the 18 benchmarks set by Congress there has been “satisfactory progress.” That was enough for a presidential seal of approval. In other words, getting right answers on less than half the exam questions earns a pass. If the standards for No Child Left Behind were that low, we would be descending toward mass illiteracy.

The report trumpeted improvement in some areas, such as reducing sectarian violence and moving toward constitutional revision, while admitting that many plans are not going so well — such as disarming militias, getting Iraqi forces to fight on their own, and coming up with a fair way to divvy up the country’s oil revenue.

In truth, the progress cited in the report is modest and in dispute, even among people in the administration. The failures, on the other hand, are universally acknowledged and of critical importance. The only realistic way to interpret the overall outlook is grim, with no prospect of improvement.

The White House says bloodshed is on the wane. But last week, Thomas Fingar, head of the government’s own National Intelligence Council, testified on Capitol Hill that it has “not yet been reduced significantly.” Only last month, the Pentagon issued its own report admitting that the violence has not subsided but merely “shifted location.”

Certainly Iraq is not getting discernibly safer for the U.S. military. More American troops died in the last three months than in any quarter since the 2003 invasion. Despite the surge, the number of attacks by the enemy has been running at a near-record level. Sunni insurgents are still fully capable of wreaking havoc, like the truck bomb July 7 that killed more than 100 people in Kirkuk.

The Iraq Index is compiled regularly by Brookings Institution defense analyst Michael O’Hanlon, who endorsed the president’s surge strategy when it was announced. But its latest edition concludes the bad news outweighs the good.

Ethnic cleansing, it notes, continues apace, car bombings are still common, the economy is a wreck, and, “perhaps worst of all, the Iraqi political system has failed to deliver any real progress on the core issues dividing Sunni from Shiite from Kurd.” Assessing the Iraqi police, an anonymous Pentagon official told The Washington Post recently that “half of them are part of the problem, not the solution.”

Curtailing slaughter is not just a goal in itself but a means to a greater end — namely, political reconciliation that would provide Iraq with a stable government commanding the allegiance of all groups and regions. In that respect, any alleged successes on the military front have not led to progress in the political sphere.

The Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds are supposed to be working out their differences, but the main Sunni party has been boycotting the Cabinet and parliament. One of the benchmarks the administration says has been met is the formation of a Constitutional Review Committee. But the committee is way past the deadline to finish its work. And an oil law looks like it is being timed to coincide with the next appearance of Halley’s Comet.

By now, we should all know that the president is determined to portray Iraq as a success in the making no matter how much it looks like a failure. He said Thursday that the results of the surge so far are “cause for optimism.” But in September 2004, he was “pleased with the progress.” In January 2005, he said, “I’m optimistic about it.” A year later, he said, “We are winning.” The president’s mood is always good and always wrong.

He wants Congress to be patient and wait until September, when the next progress report is due. At that point, if things go as he expects, he’ll be riding at the front of a victory parade, on his brand new pony.
———–
Steve Chapman is a member of the Tribune’s editorial board. E-mail: schapman@tribune.com

Unshakable optimism on Iraq policy | Chicago Tribune

People who think for a living, no matter what their political stripe, seem to agree: the way this war has been and continues to be prosecuted is (dare I say it?) criminally wrong.

Congress, wake up!

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE

*By the way, this is my sandbox, so I’ll number these posts as I please. This entry seems a useful continuation of the weekend’s Iraq report card thread.

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